Modern Deals to Rebuild Bridges Crossing the Potomac River

demolition of the steel girders of the 1961 Woodrow Wilson Bridge in 2006
demolition of the steel girders of the 1961 Woodrow Wilson Bridge in 2006
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project (July 17, 2007)

Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia have succeeded in negotiating boundary-crossing deals to replace bridges over the Potomac River, rather than disputing ownership rights. Virginia agreed to pay percentages of the construction costs based on more than just the percentage of the bridges located on the Virginia side of the boundary line.

Replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, built in 1961, was necessary because traffic far exceeded its capacity. By 2004, 200,000 vehicles/day were crossing a bridge expected to carry 75,000 vehicles/day. There were eight lanes on either side of the bridge, but the bridge was a six-lane bottleneck. The project included new intersections and improvements on a 7.5 mile section of Interstate 95/495 (Capital Beltway).

Due to the legislation that authorized the bridge originally in 1954, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge ended up as the only one in the interstate highway system owned by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). It crossed land and water owned by Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Only 700 feet of the new bridge crossed the Potomac River within the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia, though that included the structure in the middle of the bridge from which a draw span operator can raise/lower the spans for ship passage.

The three local jurisdictions assumed responsibility for bridge operations and maintenance, with a District of Columbia employee as draw span operator. Bridge ownership became significant when maintenance and repair costs began to climb in the 1970's. The Federal Highway Administration noted:1

Three jurisdictions operate and maintain a structure belonging to a fourth. Efforts at improving the bridge are stymied by jurisdictional disputes and coordination problems. Federal responsibilities, as owner but not operator or maintainer of the bridge, are confusing and unclear.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1981 provided funding to resurface and improve "any bridge on the Interstate System which is both owned by the United States Government and located in two States and the District of Columbia." The two states and the District of Columbia agreed with each other on how to maintain the improved bridge, but in 1989 they refused to accept title to the structure. Leaving it in Federal ownership avoided accepting the costs to build a replacement bridge.2

As the owner, the Federal Highway Administration took the lead role in negotiating the replacement of the bridge. The Federal agency completed a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 1991, then a supplemental draft in 1996 and a second supplemental in 1996.

Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia agreed to create a National Capital Region Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Tunnel Authority to own the bridge. The US Congress authorized the interstate compact, and the jurisdictions ratified it in 1996. The Federal Highway Administration used a 29-member Interagency Coordination Group to synchronize planning and design, and to resolve conflicts with other Federal, state, and local governmental agencies.

Later, Maryland and Virginia agreed to joint ownership of the new bridge. Once Maryland and Virginia agreed to own the new bridge, the District limited its role in the project to just commenting on drafts.

Jones Point lighthouse marks the southern tip of the District of Columbia
Jones Point lighthouse marks the southern tip of the District of Columbia
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project (July 17, 2007)

The preferred alternative in the 1997 Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was for a 12-lane bridge, but there was significant pressure to expand the scope of the study to consider the alternatives of a tunnel and a 10-lane bridge. At one point, the District Court for the District of Columbia ruled the Final Environmental Impact Statement was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act.3

The Federal Highway Administration succeeded in convincing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the "purpose and need" for the new bridge required 12 lanes. When it became clear that construction would require dredging more material than anticipated, another supplemental study and Final Environmental Impact Statement evaluated alternatives for disposal of dredged material. 500,000 cubic yards were barged to Port Tobacco in Charles County, and used to fill an old sand and gravel mining pit on land once part of historic Shirley Plantation.

Construction started in 1999. Half of the new bridge opened in 2006, and the other half in 2008. It was fully completed in 2013. Life expectancy of the new structure is 75 years.4

new Woodrow Wilson Bridge under construction (1961 bridge on left)
new Woodrow Wilson Bridge under construction (1961 bridge on left)
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project (July 17, 2007)

During President Andrew Jackson's second term, the US Congress approved a proposal for a bridge crossing the Potomac River upstream of the wagon bridge, Long Bridge. It would provide access from the new "Jackson City" development, on the southern bank in Alexandria County, to Georgetown, Washington City, and Washington County (the rest of the District of Columbia) on the northern bank.5

Memorial Bridge was finally constructed there, after an incident in 1921. Traffic following the casket to the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier clogged Aqueduct Bridge, and almost caused President Warren G. Harding to miss the internment ceremony in Virginia at the Arlington National Cemetery.

When Memorial Bridge opened on January 18, 1932 the bridge physically and symbolically connected Arlington National Cemetery to the Lincoln Memorial. Both ends of Memorial Bridge were within the boundaries of the District, even though Alexandria County on the southern bank had been "retroceded" to Virginia in 1847, because the edge of the Potomac River was on the southern side of Boundary Channel. The Federal Government was fully responsible for funding and building the bridge, which did include a span constructed within Virginia over Richmond Highway to provide access to Arlington Memorial Cemetery. The Arlington Memorial Bridge provided access to the Federal cemetery and the George Washington Memorial Parkway between 1932-38, when the Arlington County road network was finally connected to the bridge.

the Arlington Memorial Bridge is within the boundaries of the District of Columbia
the Arlington Memorial Bridge is within the boundaries of the District of Columbia
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

In 1932, the 2,100-foot long structure was the "longest, heaviest and fastest opening drawbridge in the world." After low bridges were constructed downstream, the drawspan was no longer opened after February 28, 1961.

The Memorial Bridge's 50-year lifespan was extended by multiple repair efforts, but in 2016, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) notified the National Park Service that the bridge would have to be closed in 2021 because more short-term repairs would not be acceptable. The rehabilitation included replacing the two wing spans of the draw bridge, with the fixed-in-place component covered by the original decorative metal arches on either side of the bridge.

Rehabilitation of the Memorial Bridge was completed in 2018-19, after the National Park Service and the District of Columbia were awarded a $90 million grant under the new Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies (FASTLANE) program in 2016. Rehabilitation, like initial construction, was within the boundaries of the District of Columbia.6


Source: National Park Service

the Federal government funded rehabilitation of the Arlington Memorial Bridge within the District of Columbia
the Federal government funded rehabilitation of the Arlington Memorial Bridge within the District of Columbia
Source: National Park Service, Arlington Memorial Bridge Rehabilitation

Only one bridge crosses the Potomac River downstream of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The bridge carrying US 301 between King George County and Charles County was completed in 1940. At the time, the narrow two-lane structure, without shoulders and with no divider between its two lanes of traffic, was a welcome replacement for the ferries required to cross the Potomac River. It was rehabilitated in the 1980s, but 25 years later Maryland decided it was time to completely replace it.

all of the US 301 bridge across the Potomac River is in Maryland, except for the approach ramp in King George County
all of the US 301 bridge across the Potomac River is in Maryland, except for the approach ramp in King George County
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The replacement for the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton Bridge required building a new span through Wayside Park, the only public beach public beach in King George County. To replace the six acres impacted by the project, the Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to purchase 168 acres of replacement parkland for the county.

The "practical design" for the replacement bridge, adopted by the Maryland Department of Transportation, proposed to eliminate the shared-use path for bicycles/pedestrians on the bridge in order to reduce costs. The Maryland Transportation Authority estimated that a a barrier-protected pedestrian lane would add $64 million in costs. Initially it would service just 46 bike/pedestrian trips per day, and population growth in Charles or King George counties was not expected to increase the number substantially. Rather than make an investment of $1.3 million per daily user, Maryland officials chose to allocate the $64 million to I-95 improvements instead.

The George Washington Regional Commission and the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization could only express their concerns about the change; the Virginia-based organizations had no authority to shape Maryland's design decisions. Maryland was providing $463 million in funding and Virginia was contributing only $13 million, dealing only with the project on its side of the state boundary. Charles County declined to accept the old bridge and fund the maintenance required to keep it as a separate pedestrian/bicycle crossing.7

Upstream of Washington DC, the American Legion Bridge carries the Capital Beltway (I-495) across the Potomac River. In 2019, the governors of Virginia and Maryland signed a "Capital Beltway Accord" to replace that bridge.

Just 21% of the American Legion Bridge is on the Virginia side of the state border, and Virginia agreed to pay 21% of the costs to replace the eight existing lanes which will remain open for general purpose traffic. However, Virginia committed to pay 100% of the cost for two new northbound toll lanes from the George Washington Parkway to River Road in Maryland, and Maryland agreed to pay 100% of the cost of equivalent southbound toll lanes. In essence, Virginia committed to cover 50% of the costs for adding new toll lanes to a bridge which was 79% in Maryland.

the American Legion Bridge in 2019
the American Legion Bridge in 2019
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), I-495 Washington DC

Both states anticipated that taxpayers could finance none of the new construction. Instead, the states would sign public-private partnerships with private corporations which would build the replacement lanes for the American Legion Bridge, and Virginia would share more than 21% of the toll revenues to facilitate completion of the project. Separately, Virginia also extended its public-private partnership with Transurban to extend the I-495 Express Lanes an additional 2.5 miles to connect with the American Legion project.8

replacing the US 301 bridge impacted six acres of Wayside Park in King George County
replacing the US 301 bridge impacted six acres of Wayside Park in King George County
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), Project Overview - Conceptual Design: Virginia Approach, Harry W. Nice / Thomas "Mac" Middleton Bridge Replacement

Replacing the Long Bridge over the Potomac River, expanding from two to four railroad tracks, required negotiating a deal between Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Railroad Administration. The District Department of Transportation completed the initial environmental reviews and chose the preferred alternative. The decision was to repair the existing two-track bridge, construct a new two-track bridge to double train capacity, and to build a separate bike and pedestrian bridge to increase non-motorized mobility.9

In December 2019, Governor Northam announced a plan to spend $3.7 billion to acquire right-of-way owned by CSXT and build two new tracks from L'Enfant to Alexandria. Virginia agreed to build a new, $1.9 billion two-track railroad bridge parallel to the existing Long Bridge plus a separate bike/pedestrian bridge across the Potomac River.

To construct the new two-track railroad bridge over the Potomac River, the District Department of Transportation agreed to transfer sponsorship of the Long Bridge project to Virginia following completion of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The state expected to pay 1/3 of the cost, and get another 1/3 from the Federal government and Amtrak. Maryland, the District of Columbia, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), and regional transportation commissions were expected to provide the last 1/3.10

Virginia decided to purchase CSXT right-of-way so it could build two new tracks from L'Enfant in the District of Columbia to Alexandria
Virginia decided to purchase CSXT right-of-way so it could build two new tracks from L'Enfant in the District of Columbia to Alexandria
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), DRPT Overview (April 23, 2018)

two additional tracks (red) will be added parallel to Long Bridge and its approaches
two additional tracks (red) will be added parallel to Long Bridge and its approaches
Source: Virginia Department Transportation, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project/a> (July 17, 2007)

Bridges in Virginia

Long Bridge Over the Potomac River

Potomac River and the Virginia-District of Columbia Boundary

Virginia-Maryland Boundary

Woodrow Wilson Bridge

Links

References

1. "Case Study - Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Maryland and Virginia," Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, 2010, pp.1-3, p.7, http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/shrp2/SHRP2_CS_C01_WilsonBridge.pdf; "Highway History - Why is the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge Named after Woodrow Wilson?," Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/wwrambler.cfm (last checked December 4, 2019)
2. "Highway History - Why is the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge Named after Woodrow Wilson?," Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/wwrambler.cfm (last checked December 4, 2019)
3. "Case Study - Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Maryland and Virginia," Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, 2010, p.7, p.13, http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/shrp2/SHRP2_CS_C01_WilsonBridge.pdf; "HB 1163 Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Tunnel Compact," Virginia Legislative Information System, 1996, http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?961+sum+HB1163 (last checked November 30, 2019)
4. "Replacing the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River," Centre for Public Impact, April 11, 2016, https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/case-study/replacing-woodrow-wilson-bridge/; "Past Projects," Weanack Land, https://www.weanack.com/wwb (last checked November 30, 2019)
5. "Arlington Memorial Bridge," Historic American Engineering Record HAER No. DC-7, 1988, p.2, http://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/dc/dc0600/dc0604/data/dc0604data.pdf (last checked December 18, 2019)
6. "Iron workers fixing Washington's historic Memorial Bridge manhandle steel girders — and mind their fingers," Washington Post, September 12, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2019/09/12/iron-workers-fixing-washingtons-historic-memorial-bridge-manhandle-steel-girders-mind-their-fingers/; "After 80 years, the Memorial Bridge is getting a massive makeover," Washington Post, March 7, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/after-80-years-the-memorial-bridge-is-getting-a-massive-makeover/2019/03/07/248cc7ea-3f8b-11e9-9361-301ffb5bd5e6_story.html; "National Park Service completes Arlington Memorial Bridge emergency repair project," National Park Service, May 26, 2016, https://www.nps.gov/gwmp/learn/news/national-park-service-completes-arlington-memorial-bridge-emergency-repair-project.htm; "Inaugural FASTLANE Grants Leverage $3.6 Billion to Support Transportation Infrastructure," Virginia Department of Transportation, September 8, 2016, https://www.virginiadot.org/newsroom/statewide/2016/inaugural_fastlane_grants_leverage107249.asp; "Arlington Memorial Bridge," Historic American Engineering Record HAER No. DC-7, 1988, p.50, p.96, http://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/dc/dc0600/dc0604/data/dc0604data.pdf (last checked December 18, 2019)
7. "Governor Larry Hogan Announces $765 Million for New Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge," Maryland Department of Transportation, November 21, 2016, https://mdta.maryland.gov/blog-category/mdta-news-releases/governor-larry-hogan-announces-765-million-new-harry-w-nice-memorial-bridge; "Excerpts," Rappahannock Record, December 5, 2018, https://rrecord.com/excerpts-111/; "6 Possible Paths for Cramped Md. Span," Washington Post, December 9, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/08/AR2007120800735.html; "King George accepts replacement land for bridge work," Free Lance-Star, September 5, 2019, https://www.fredericksburg.com/news/king-george-accepts-replacement-land-for-bridge-work/article_4b0b1bfd-1ae6-5201-966d-ccd784a3dc09.html; Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, "RE: Request for Assistance (Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge Replacement Project)" letter to Governor Hogan, September 18, 2017, https://www.fampo.gwregion.org/wp-content/uploads/091817-pc-meeting-packet-final.pdf; "Maryland sheds light on decision to cut protected bike lane from Nice Bridge," WTOP, December 19, 2019, https://wtop.com/dc-transit/2019/12/maryland-sheds-light-on-decision-to-cut-protected-bike-lane-from-nice-bridge/; "No Bike Path for New Nice/Middleton Bridge," Maryland Matters, November 22, 2019, https://www.marylandmatters.org/blog/no-bike-path-for-new-nice-middleton-bridge/ (last checked February 19, 2020)
8. "Governor Northam, Governor Hogan Announce Historic ‘Capital Beltway Accord’ to Rebuild American Legion Bridge, Connect Interstate Highway System," Governor of Virginia press release, November 12, 2019, https://www.governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/all-releases/2019/november/headline-849278-en.html; "Maryland and Virginia to rebuild and widen the American Legion Bridge, governors say," Washington Post, November 12, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/maryland-and-virginia-to-rebuild-and-widen-the-american-legion-bridge-governors-say/2019/11/12/6531d8fe-04c9-11ea-ac12-3325d49eacaa_story.html (last checked December 7, 2019)
9. "New DC-Va. bridge plan would add more trains, bike paths over Potomac," WTOP, November 29, 2019, https://wtop.com/dc-transit/2018/11/new-dc-va-bridge-plan-would-add-more-trains-bike-paths-over-potomac/; "Plan for Long Bridge expansion moves forward," Washington Post, September 11, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2019/09/11/plan-long-bridge-expansion-moves-forward/ (last checked December 17, 2019)
10. "Transforming Rail in Virginia," Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, http://www.drpt.virginia.gov/rail/transforming-rail-in-virginia/; "Virginia’s $3.7 billion rail plan called a 'game changer.' Here's what we know about it," Washington Post, January 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/virginias-37-billion-rail-plan-called-a-game-changer-heres-what-we-know-about-it/2020/01/11/fa465172-3174-11ea-a053-dc6d944ba776_story.html (last checked January 11, 2020)


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